Filling the Ark
The folk music club changes--quietly
"It's great to hear young music," Dave Siglin says.
Siglin ran the Ark, Ann Arbor's legendary folk music club, from 1968 to 2008. "I retired because I was getting old and I wanted it to get younger," he says. "If I stayed, it would have gotten a little older and a little older until ... " Siglin's fade to silence says it all.
Far from fading away, the Ark--founded forty-eight years ago as an interdenominational campus coffeehouse--is doing better than ever. When the Ark moved to its present spot upstairs on Main Street in 1996, it presented 210 shows annually. Last year, it put on 310, and income was $2.5 million--up from $1.4 million a decade ago. The annual Folk Festival fundraiser at Hill Auditorium has sold out both nights for the last five years. And the Ark is no longer vulnerable to rent increases: earlier this year, it bought its Main Street venue as a condo.
"The Ark is doing far better financially than when I was there," says Dave Siglin, who still sits on the board. "The difference is in the booking policy. I booked acts that wouldn't draw that well because they were artistically important. I had been a musician; I was looking at it from musician's standpoint more than they are now--and what they're doing now is very good."
The key players in the Ark's evolution are executive director Marianne James and program director Anya Siglin. James has been with the Ark since 1997. As Dave and Linda Siglin's daughter, Anya has been around more or less since infancy, but she officially joined the staff in 1994.
At Dave's retirement they inherited a stable organization with a faithful audience, but their success was by no means assured--and immediately challenged. "The same year Dave retired, the economy tanked," James recalls. "The Ark had been through business cycles before, but nothing like this. But we hunkered down and weathered the storm amazingly well."
"We kept our prices down," Anya Siglin
puts in. "We even lowered some prices."
"When the economy went south, the worst thing would be if people said the Ark changed," continues James. "But we didn't, and revenue was steady through the recession."
But the Ark did change--quietly. "We're consciously trying to bring in a younger audience," Anya Siglin says. For the venerable club, James adds, "younger" means people in their thirties and forties--a demographic less devoted to traditional folk music than the Baby Boomers who've formed the club's core audience since its founding. "Traditional music is great music, but it doesn't draw like it used to," says Anya Siglin. "But don't worry: we're not going to go heavy metal or reggae."
As an example of a young band attracting a young audience she cites the Civil Wars, the singer-songwriter duo of Joy Williams and John Paul White. "They have a huge marketing team. They appeared here [at the club], and eight months later they sold 1,300 seats at the Michigan Theater. That's the way it is with a lot of young bands. With this level of technology, you've either got to get them right away or you'll never get them."
Just because an artist gets big doesn't necessarily mean they're lost to the club. The ideal, James explains in a later email, is "presenting artists through the whole arc of their career. We're usually still involved in presenting an artist who starts out at The Ark when they play a bigger venue in the area. Then, if they get to a point where they're playing clubs again, they're back at The Ark."
But that's only if they start early. "Getting big fast can have an impact on whether or not we can catch an artist at the outset--before they blow up," James continues. "If we haven't presented them before that, we're generally out of the loop. If we catch them at all, it will be much later in their career, when they're not drawing the big numbers anymore."
The managers don't expect any major changes in either the Main Street club or the Folk Festival, but James says that in the future "we may do some additional programming, possibly in partnership with the school system or with the city."
It's a future they both want to be part of. "We've still got a lot of miles left in us," says James. "For us, it's a stewardship. I always say 'Please, don't let me break the Ark.'"
"Oh God," Anya Siglin agrees. "Please don't let me break the Ark."
As for Dave Siglin, he's busy with a new project: putting the Ark's musical history online. "I donated all the tapes I made of shows to the Bentley Library. They're going to digitalize them, then the performers will listen to them, and if they approve, people will be able to go to a website to listen for free, or they will be able to download it from the performer."
[Originally published in October, 2013.]